Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald
Automotive model names are a closely guarded subject. For instance, check out the brinksmanship between Ford and Nissan. In July of 2021, Ford Motor Company petitioned the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a word mark for the name “Skyline.” It’s unclear whether Ford had a product on the docket that they were interested in naming “Skyline,” but Nissan has utilized that model name in the home market since 1969. It never used it here in the US, though, always referring to its high-performance grand tourer as “GT-R”. Ford, on the other hand, had a product called the “Skyliner” in 1959. Was Ford about to mount a resurrection, or was it just yanking Nissan’s chain? We’ll need to wait for a bit to find out.
Lots of name brands have been gone for a period of time, only to be resurrected years later. Some are wildly successful, others…well, not so much. Here are the winners and losers of the resurrection battle over the last few decades.
WINNER: Dodge Challenger
You might think that the Dodge Challenger made a huge cultural impact when it was released in 1970, but you’d be wrong.. 1970 was its best year of production, selling 76,925 units. Immediately afterward, though, it dropped to less than 30,000 units for 1971, which started a mostly consistent downward spiral until it bottomed out at 11,345 units in 1974.
The Challenger was resurrected in 2008 on the eve of the financial crisis, so sales were pretty weak for the first two or three years. However, once it hit its stride in 2012, Dodge could count on anywhere between 50,000 and 60,000 units sold every year, a solid number for a two-door coupe in an era when the only thing anyone wants to buy is a crossover.
The Challenger is the only vehicle we’re going to talk about here that was resurrected TWICE. The first time was in 1978 when it was a rebadged Mitsubishi Gallant Lambda, also sold here as the Plymouth Sapporo.
LOSER: Chevrolet Camaro
It is insane to consider how many people were driving Camaros in the 1970s. In 1979, Chevrolet managed to find 282,571 Camaro buyers. That’s more Camaros than Chevrolet has managed to sell in the entire sixth-generation so far, and it’s within 10,000 units of the number of Camrys that Toyota sold in 2020.
The resurrected Camaro promise just never materialized for Chevrolet. Monthly volume has typically been half that – or much less – than the Challenger, and it’s never once come close to outselling its traditional rival, the Ford Mustang. The closest it came was during the doldrums of the financial crisis in January of 2011, with around 5,500 units to the Mustang’s 8,000.
In 2021, Chevrolet sold just 21,893 examples of its two-door sports coupe, less than half the number of Challengers sold that year.
WINNER: Ford Bronco
There hasn’t been a more anticipated relaunch of anything before the Ford Bronco. Bowing out in 1996, Ford waited 25 years to reintroduce the brand, and took its sweet time teasing the product for YEARS before it finally began taking orders. In a traditional year, that would’ve equated to huge numbers, but unfortunately for Ford, it relaunched during the midst of a pandemic and a global chip shortage, leading to meme-worthy delays in production that are still going on today.
Still, as of December 2021, Ford sold 35,023 vehicles in an absolutely grim year. It was selling at a pace of 9,168 vehicles per month, but the thought is that once the chip shortage straightens out and things get back to somewhat normal, that number should rival the Wrangler, which has easily been able to crest 200,000 units every year since 2018.
LOSER: Chevrolet Blazer
When Chevrolet re-introduced the Blazer in 2019 as a mid-size crossover SUV, the reception was less than enthusiastic. It barely got an introduction. In its best year so far, Chevrolet sold 94,000-some-odd Blazers, which doesn’t sound bad, but this is THE segment in which to sell vehicles. In a good year, Toyota sells 450,000 RAV4s, and Honda sells nearly 375,000 CR-Vs. KIA manages to move as many Sportage models as Chevrolet sells Blazers.
WINNER: Ford Maverick
Like the Bronco, Ford was absolutely hamstrung launching a vehicle in the middle of a global chip shortage. But there is MASSIVE demand for this truck. At the time of this writing, you can’t even ORDER a Maverick, and inventories of the truly compact pickup are razor-thin.
Contrary to most truck sales numbers, it’s the low end of the Maverick spectrum that seems to generate excitement. The bare-bones Maverick XL can be ordered with a hybrid drivetrain, making it not only the least expensive pickup in America, but the least expensive hybrid vehicle, too.
We won’t talk about sales numbers just yet, because whatever the numbers are, they’re nowhere near what they would be in a normal year.
LOSER: Ford Thunderbird
It hasn’t all been magic for Ford, though. The Thunderbird was out of commission after its Fox Body version in 1997 when it was reinvigorated in 2002 as one of J. Mays’ Retrofuturist vehicles that were so insanely popular in the early 2000s (see: Audi TT, VW Beetle).
The Thunderbird never made it, though. Despite having a nameplate that stretched back to the golden era of American automotive production in 1955, the resurrected Thunderbird was a failure almost from the get-go.
Built between 2002 and 2005, it never found the nostalgic Boomer audience it was supposed to, topping out at 19,085 units in 2002.
WINNER: Volkswagen Beetle
European manufacturers jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon with the Volkswagen Beetle. The old air-cooled Beetle was the most successful imported car of all time, and found eager buyers here after its wildly successful ad campaign in 1959. It sold strongly for Volkswagen right through the late 1970s when air-cooled engines no longer met advancing clean air requirements.
In 1998, Volkswagen introduced what it called the New Beetle (dropping the “New” after a few years when the novelty had worn off). It’s hard to remember now just what a massive success the New Beetle was when it arrived. In its first half-year of production, it sold 55,000 units, with another 83,000 the second year, on top of another 81,000 in 2000. It reinvigorated the brand.
It was never able to replicate that success, even after a redesign, though. By the mid-2010s, just 22,000 Beetles a year were sold here.
LOSER: Fiat 500
Maybe it’s because we never got the original Fiat Cinquecento here in any significant numbers, but the resurrected Fiat 500 that arrived in 2011 just never found an audience. They were super cool with the option of a Webasto-style canvas roof that folded all the way back behind the rear seats, and they were a blast to drive, especially in Abarth trim. Even the 500e electric vehicle was a hoot, and gave the FCA brands a head start in understanding EV technology.
But they were always too quirky, too small, and too weird for American tastes. In its best year of sales in 2012, Fiat only sold 43,772 Fiat 500s in America, barely enough to keep the lights on in Fiat showrooms.
WINNER: Nissan Z
The 240Z is the car that put Datsun – Nissan’s American brand name here in the United States – on the map in 1969. Nissan had been slowly building a reputation in post-WWII California, building rugged, reliable little pickup trucks. But it was the Datsun 510 – launched in 1968 – and the follow-up 240Z that made Datsun the brand to watch in Vietnam-era America.
Unfortunately, the 240Z got progressively less interesting as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, bloating with luxury features every passing year, and not helped at all by the rising disparity between the Japanese Yen and the U.S. Dollar. By the time the Z bowed out in 2000, there was little price difference between a loaded Nissan 300ZX Turbo and a comparable product from Porsche.
The nameplate took a three-year hiatus – the shortest death and resurrection we’re reporting here – and was reintroduced in 2003 as the 350Z, a beautifully modern sports car that went back to its two-seat roots. In 2010, the 370 Z reached its high water mark with 10,215 cars sold. That number has dwindled to just 36 cars in 2021, but a new Z is on the horizon for 2023.
LOSER: Acura NSX
We’re calling the NSX a loser here only in terms of sales. Acura launched the NSX back in 1991, outpacing contenders from Ferrari with what has been called a technological tour-de-force, a dual overhead cam, normally aspirated V-6 that churned 270 horsepower, pushing an all-aluminum chassis and body to supercar performance levels.
Acura sold essentially the same car from 1991 to 2005 before it dropped its then $90,000 supercar from the lineup.
It resurrected the nameplate in 2017, delivering an all-wheel drive supercar with a hybrid drivetrain, combining to produce 573hp from a power team singing away behind the seats.
Sadly, sales have been grim from the start. In 2016, Acura sold 50 examples, and it’s never crested that figure since, delivering just 23 cars in 2021.
There’s no magic formula to getting Americans to buy cars. The hope with using a model name from the past is that there’s some recognition factor that gives a vehicle a leg up in a competitive landscape. But as we’ve seen throughout history, it doesn’t work as often as it does.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.